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Agatha Christie cited native Indian plants as poison sources in her books


Kolkata: Agatha Christie Queen of Crime not only used the quintessential Victorian-era poisons but also the examples of native Indian plants as sources for her poisons in her deadly murder-plots to kill off characters, British chemist and author Kathryn Harkup said.

In “A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie”, Harkup sheds light on how the author gained the know-how on the lethal compounds while working as a dispenser in Britain and weaved them into her brilliant novels.

“The most underrated aspect of Christie, in my opinion, is how many different poisons she used. There is an assumption that she just used arsenic, but she used over 30 different compounds to kill her characters,” Harkup told in an email interaction while in India to attend literary fests in Kolkata and New Delhi.

Dame Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. She has to her credit over 80 novels and short stories. Her 125th birthday was commemorated worldwide on September 15, 2015.

Christie’s considerable knowledge of chemistry and the nitty-gritties of poisons was amassed during her professional years in a pharmacy during both World Wars.

“I have looked into the Ayurveda system of medicine during my research, as Christie used examples of native Indian plants as sources for her poisons.

“Christie would have used atropine, strychnine, and aconitine in the preparations she made as an apothecaries assistant. All of these compounds can be obtained from plants that are native to India. I looked at the example of the use of these compounds in the Ayurveda system, particularly atropine,” Harkup, whose visit was sponsored by the British Council, revealed.

For example, in “4:50 from Paddington”, aconitine (monkshood/aconitum napellus) is the central agent, strychnine (strychnos nux vomica) in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” and atropine (datura) in “The Cretan Bull” or “Caribbean Mystery”, said Harkup.

While delving deep into the scientific basis of the use of poisons by Christie, Harkup was amazed by the phenomenal effort the author had put into clear her apothecaries exams.

“The most interesting thing I learned was how much studying she had done for her apothecaries exams. She had to learn theoretical and practical chemistry as well as about pharmacy and how to make up prescriptions. She even practiced the Marsh Test (the test for arsenic) in preparation for her exams which surprised me.”

In fact, the author’s most treasured review was from The Pharmaceutical Journal where they praised her book “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” for its scientific accuracy, even though women were not seen as great leaders in science in Christie’s day, according to Harkup.

She singles out thallium (featured in “The Pale Horse”) and eserine (featured in “Curtain”) as major evidence of Christie’s breadth of knowledge.

“Thallium, which was so little known about at the time she was writing that doctors consulted her novel for accurate descriptions of poisoning symptoms. Eserine was a drug I had never heard of until I read Christie. Eserine has a fascinating history from its discovery in West Africa to its use in medicine today,” Harkup explained.

Respected for her knowledge and accuracy, Christie was also ahead of her time in some instances.

“She used ricin to kill three people in the short story “The House of Lurking Death”. Christie was writing almost 50 years before anyone had been murdered using this poison (as far as we know). Unfortunately, because there were no other cases that she could draw on, some of the science is not very accurate.

“Anyone trying to mimic Christie would not be a very successful murderer if they used the method in this story,” Harkup pointed out.

Published by Bloomsbury, “A is for Arsenic” also looks at why certain chemicals kill, how they interact with the body, and the feasibility of obtaining, administering, and detecting these poisons, both when Christie was writing and today.

“I hope the book can be seen as not just a science book but also about history and social aspects of science as well as Agatha Christie and her work,” added Harkup whose next book is on the science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.(IANS)(image:electricliterature)

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  • Raj

    The writer and the editors, clearly, have no idea what is a million or a billion. Review the story, and correct it, please.

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Science writing: A neglected form of literature that needs focus

Science has more to teach us about ourselves, our past and future, than any preacher, politician or philosopher ever could

The scientists across various disciplines are dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else. Wikimedia Commons
The scientists across various disciplines are dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else. Wikimedia Commons

Along with philosophers, tax lawyers and computer programmers, scientists are perceived as speaking in a language which is supposedly the same as that of common people, but scarcely intelligible to them. And then they use strange symbols, complicated equations, and considerable jargon to talk of “things” unlikely to affect an average person’s life or to be even seen without specialised equipment.

So can scientific writing in any way be even comparable to literature? Yes, for scientists, across various disciplines, are also dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else, and can express themselves on their subject in ways the most lyrical poet, the most imaginative novelist or the most incisive historian could well envy.

Be it those trying to discern the cosmos’ origin, matter’s structure, the bewildering development and processes of life, including by evolution (despite what some Indian ministers may think), the abundant marvels of nature (including, but beyond humans too), and so on, scientists have written about their work and findings in absorbing ways.

Also Read: Scientists Use Pocket-size Device to Map Human Genetic Code

And in this, they have more to teach us about ourselves, our past and future, than any preacher, politician or philosopher ever could.

Let us take a selection from the last century, which was full of developments across all spheres of science.

And since our existence in terms of our position in the world and the universe is key, we can start with an English physicist, astronomer and mathematician placing things in perspective.

“… we attempt to discover the nature and purpose of the universe which surrounds our home in time and space. Our first impression is something akin to terror. We find the universe terrifying because of its vast meaningless distances, terrifying because of its inconceivably long vistas of time which dwarf human history to the twinkling of an eye, terrifying because of our extreme loneliness, and because of the material insignificance of our home in space — a millionth part of a grain of sand out of all the sea-sand in the world.

Coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution -- and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons
Coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution — and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons

But above all else, we find the universe terrifying because it appears to be indifferent to life like our own; emotion, ambition and achievement, art and religion seem equally foreign to its plan,” wrote Sir James Hopwood Jeans (1877-1946) in “The Mysterious Universe” (1930).

Also Read: Scientists Solve Mystery Of When Flowers Originated

Then, coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution — and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Among the best to explain its significance is Helena Cronin (b. 1942), a philosopher of biology and co-director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and the Darwin Centre at the London School of Economics.

“We are all walking archives of ancestral wisdom. Our bodies and minds are live monuments to our forebears’ rare successes. This Darwin has taught us. The human eye, our brain, our instincts, are legacies of natural selection’s victories, embodiments of the cumulative experience of the past,” she says in the beginning of her “The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today” (1991), on one of science’s “foremost achievements” — the Darwinian theory.

Then there are those unravellers of life’s basic building block — DNA structure discoverers James Watson and Francis Crick.

About the moment of discovery, Crick, in his autobiography “What Mad Pursuit” (1988), says his research partner remembers he went into the pub across the road where they launched daily and told everyone they had discovered the secret of life. “Of that, I have no recollection, but I do recall going home and telling (wife) Odile that we seemed to have made a big discovery. Years later she told me that she hadn’t believed a word of it. ‘You were always coming home and saying things like that,’, she said, ‘so naturally, I thought nothing of it’…”

Also Read: Planets Beyond Milky Way Galaxy Discovered For First Time

Watson, after his “The Double Helix” (1968), followed up with “Avoid Boring People” (2007), which has each chapter ending with lessons such as “Never Be The Brightest Person In A Room”, “Avoid Gatherings Of More Two Nobel Prize Winners”, but also “Work On Sundays”, and “Put Lots Of Spin On Balls”.

Switching to the physical world, we cannot ignore possibly the 20th century’s most well-recognised scientist — Albert Einstein. Let’s take his insightful essay, “Religion and Science”, in which he eloquently pleads the case for new, better form of religious experience which will give rise to a new relationship between these two.

After discussing the need-based and the social impulse-based variants which have in common “the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God” and which is only surmounted by “individuals of exceptional endowment”, he comes to a third — “cosmic religious feeling”, which, according to Einstein, “is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research”.

For “only those who realise the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue…”.

Also Read: Is the moon’s surface evolving?

Can there any better exposition of science’s purpose? (IANS)

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)